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Barn Hunt: Stay Outta the Way


March 15, 2015 by Julia

As I digest the lessons from my first Barn Hunt trial (another event excellently hosted by UDSNNE), it comes down to this – trust your instincts and stay out of the way.

Trust Your Instincts

I started the day feeling a bit smug (never a good sign) because Delta and I had successfully found the rat in every practice Instinct and Novice run thru we’d done. I was far less nervous than I’ve ever been before going into a trial ring, more excited than nervous. I figured this would be a breeze and we’d probably end the day with one leg left to get our RATN (Novice) title.

But I forgot that the trial feels different to the dog too. The first two runs of the day I saw Delta find the rat but I hesitated, thinking “I’ll just wait another moment so I’m sure.” And she’d move on and sniff other things, then become interested in a second spot, which I’d promptly call. She’d always become “stuck” to the right tube when she found it in practice, but the trial was busier and had a lot more excited people and dogs. She was showing me the rat and then moving on to see what other interesting things were happening. I knew how to read my dog, but her shorter signal and my worry about being wrong stopped me. I had to trust my gut.

Stay Out of the Way

Besides setting your dog up on the starting box, the handler’s only required action in Barn Hunt is to call out “rat” when they believe their dog has indicated the location of the tube with the rat in it. The dog has to go through the hay tunnel and climb on a bale, but it doesn’t have to be at your direction. You can give your dog encouragement or direction, but that’s up to you.

My Barn Hunt handling strategy is a “less is more” approach. As much as possible, I try to keep my hands and my comments to myself. In a way, it is kind of liberating. My other activities are mostly driven by providing direction to my dog so letting her follow her instincts with minimal intervention is a welcome change of pace.

Watching other handlers was interesting. So many of us compete in other sports and most are more hands-on than I am. Many directed their dogs around the ring, some even (sadly) called their dogs off the rat to search elsewhere. I watched one woman literally point at her dog the entire run. She gave occasional direction but mostly her finger was a dowsing rod, pointing at her dog wherever it went. I doubt she realized it, so many of us have the habit of handling our dogs. It’s hard for us to stop “directing” what happens in the ring, I’m surprised at how much I am able to let go.

In our final and only qualifying run of the day, I let go of my girl, put my hands in my sweatshirt, and followed along. I gave her a little bit of direction (and commentary) when she started sniffing *outside* the ring, but tried not to chatter or tell her where to search.

From release to completion, Delta took 47:35 seconds and earned her 1st Novice leg with a pretty 2nd place ribbon as a bonus. It was a wonderful first trial experience.

Happy me and serious Little.  (photo credit: Dennis Manske)

Happy me and serious Little.
(photo credit: Dennis Manske)

What about you? Have you tried Barn Hunt? What’s your handling approach?

For those who haven’t tried and would like to, get out there. Even if you don’t have a typical “ratting” breed, any dog with some prey drive will do. Among the qualifiers this weekend were a Malamute, English Shepherd, and a Leonberger. The Malamute was the one who beat us for first place in the large dogs!

Fun side note: Delta turned 3 years old on Thursday & I shared this little gem on the blog’s Facebook page:

2013 - 2014 - 2015

2013 – 2014 – 2015

If you haven’t liked the page yet, head on over there for some everyday observations and silliness.


  1. This is the first I’ve heard of a Barn Hunt. I have a Chihuahua so he’s not much of a hunter lol. Although, he will chase birds and rabbits in our yard. hehe

    • Julia says:

      There was a Chi there this weekend who did pretty well! If he goes after bunnies, I bet you he’d like finding the rat. Heck, the winner of small dogs for one class was a French Bulldog. As long as your little guy likes critters and wouldn’t object to climbing on some hay, you’ve got what you need to try. 🙂

  2. Jana Rade says:

    What fun! Gotta try this when we can set up for that.

  3. Good job Delta! I am just starting nose work, which I am a natural at if I do say so myself, and I know exactly what you mean about how the handlers “help” their dogs. My trainers also teach barn hunting, I wasn’t sure what it was but it really looks fun and interesting, thanks for showing it! I am probably more smell driven than prey but we just may have to try it! Love Dolly

  4. Interesting! I have never heard of Barn Hunt, but it sounds a lot like Nose Work. I bet my Luna (Beagle mix) would love it!

    • Julia says:

      Similar concepts for sure, except they search for a real live rat (safely enclosed a PVC tube) instead of an essential oil. Some folks who had taught their dogs to signal in nosework were able to transfer that to barn hunt.

  5. I think Magic would love doing a barn hunt!

  6. Carleen says:

    I totally want to try barn hunting. I think my dogs would love it!

  7. Carol Bryant says:

    This sounds like a lot of fun!

  8. I loved watching her! Way to go! Riley and I went to an introductory workshop, but she was sooo not interested in the rats, I think she was a little freaked out by them… but that’s okay, she rocks in agility 🙂

    • Julia says:

      Believe it or not, I know of two people who do it with dogs that signal by acting disgusted, lol. One dog pushes more hay over the right tube, the other makes a face and goes the opposite direction.

  9. Abby Chesnut says:

    Happy birthday Delta! And congratulations! 😀
    Barn hunt looks really interesting! I have pet rats and so my girls have learned to not want to eat them and even move out of the way if they are near!

    • Julia says:

      A friend has rats and thought his dog wouldn’t do it because the dog didn’t bother their pet. But dogs are context specific and his guy happily found the right tubes. Although his theory now is that his dog smells the little treats the rats get for being in their tubes.

  10. DogVills says:

    This looks interesting. It is good to know about barn hunt

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